EU referendum: Will Boris Johnson be the big loser if Michael Gove and George Osborne become the dream ticket?

Inside Westminster: Some Tories are convinced Gove will endorse Osborne as the best man to eventually succeed the PM

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The Independent Online

David Cameron is hoping that next Wednesday’s Budget will, as one minister put it, “change the music” from the EU referendum, reassuring voters that his government is not obsessed with Europe and is doing lots of other good things.

George Osborne will do his best to play a different tune. But he is so bound into Cameron’s efforts to keep Britain in the EU that the media may see the Budget through the referendum prism. In the short term at least, the Chancellor’s chances of succeeding Cameron depend not on his economic measures but the June referendum. If the public votes for Out, he will be out of the leadership race that would surely swiftly follow.

All roads lead to Europe. Osborne’s likely Budget pitch, offering economic stability and security at a dangerous time for the world economy, will remind us of the continuing risks in the eurozone.

The Chancellor has a lot of explaining to do. Only four months ago in his Autumn Statement, he managed to magic away £4.4bn of tax credit cuts and was accused of finding £27bn “down the back of the sofa”. Suddenly the cupboard in the same room is bare. Although lower-than-expected inflation and Government borrowing costs will help his sums add up, growth forecasts are being revised downwards and Osborne is in danger of missing his own fiscal targets. He prepared the ground for more nasty medicine last month. His planned revenue-raiser, reforming the taxation of pensions, has been dropped (for now) to avoid upsetting Tory MPs and voters ahead of the referendum. A hike in fuel duty of up to 2p a litre looks inevitable. The pill may be sugared by raising the threshold for the 40p tax rate and increasing the personal allowance.

Despite his own problems in balancing the books, Osborne will want to wrong-foot Labour and attack the new fiscal rules announced by John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor. He may spike Labour’s guns by speeding up some infrastructure projects. He could try to boost the prospects of Zac Goldsmith, Tory candidate in the May election for Mayor of London, perhaps with an announcement on Crossrail 2 or a second Thames Barrier. He might be tempted to highlight Labour’s divisions by committing more money to renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

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Whatever the Budget contains Jeremy Corbyn, in his Commons response, is bound to accuse Osborne of putting personal ambition before the national interest. At present, Tory MPs are selling shares in Osborne. With about half of them backing Brexit, the Chancellor’s share price was bound to suffer a dip. He came under further criticism this week when a Tory rebellion defeated plans to relax the Sunday shopping rules in England and Wales. “The policy was made in the Treasury but he left ministers at the Communities and Business departments to sort out his mess,” grumbled one ministerial aide.

Backbench Tories are buying shares in Boris Johnson, whose decision to campaign for Brexit has extended his parliamentary fan club beyond its London base. The surprise is that Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, is suddenly being taken seriously as a future leadership contender. His decision to come out for Out is seen as principled by some Eurosceptics who suspect Johnson’s is designed to boost his career prospects. 

I can count on the fingers of one hand the politicians I believe when they tell me they have no ambition to lead their party. Gove is one of them. “It’s just not me; I haven’t got what it takes,” he says. He may have been ruthlessly dropped as Education Secretary by his friend Cameron for being “toxic” in the eyes of teachers. Despite that, Tory MPs report that he is a courteous listener on constituency visits, painstakingly taking notes about what people tell him. “The Justice Secretary who wants to rehabilitate offenders is now rehabilitating himself,” quipped one MP. “He has got a second chance and is back in the race.”

Conservative Party members, who will choose the next prime minister when Cameron steps down before the 2020 election, clearly like Gove the Outer. The latest survey of members by the ConservativeHome website gives Gove the highest net satisfaction rating (75 percentage points) of any Tory politician. Johnson is on 56 points and Osborne scores minus seven.

 Cameron has attacked the Mayor of London for advocating Brexit but has not criticised Gove, who is still in the inner circle which helps him prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday. There are even signs that Gove was given licence by Cameron to urge an Out vote. Johnson was definitely not.

After the referendum, Gove will be the man to watch – not Osborne or Johnson. Some Tories are convinced that the Justice Secretary will endorse Osborne as the best man to eventually succeed Cameron, a unity ticket designed to heal the party’s wounds after the bitter referendum infighting.

But another more intriguing scenario is now in some Tory minds: Gove takes on both Johnson and Osborne for the leadership when the Prime Minister stands down in 2019. This would not necessarily be bad news for the Chancellor. 

The shortlist of two candidates that goes to the Tories’ 150,000 members is chosen by the party’s MPs. If Gove eclipsed Johnson and became the Eurosceptic candidate who stood against Osborne in the run-off, the Osborne-Gove dream ticket would win, no matter which man came out on top.

Osborne’s reputation for plotting is so great that some Tory MPs suspect Gove’s declaration for Out is all part of a cunning plan. That might be a plot too far, even for the Chancellor. 

But it could happen, and deprive Boris of the prize.